More Than 75% of Cancer Survivors, Patients Express Wanting Employers to Implement Vaccine Mandates, Other Safety Precautions Before Returning to In-Office Work

The survey results also showed that those who have received a cancer diagnosis have faced more setbacks when it comes to working during the pandemic.

A majority of cancer survivors and patients reported feeling more comfortable returning to an in-office work setting during the COVID-19 pandemic if their workplace instituted vaccine mandates and took more safety precautions.

The findings come from a survey conducted by The Harris Poll, a market research and analytics company. And Wakefield poll results demonstrated a further setback for Black and Hispanic cancer survivors and patients in the workplace during the pandemic which included fear of potential outcomes from disclosing a cancer diagnosis and an effect on finances.

Rebecca V. Nellis, executive director of the nonprofit Cancer and Careers, told CURE® in an interview that work gives cancer survivors and patients a sense of normalcy, so to have uncertainty during the pandemic has been challenging for this community.

“The pandemic and its safety challenges have hit (the cancer) community especially hard,” she said. “As we see in the survey, 78% of survivors have had their work circumstances impacted by COVID 19. The new work-world hasn’t crystallized yet. Back-to-office keeps getting pushed back. Those who are already back in person, or those without remote options who never stopped going onsite for their job, have to face constantly changing protocols. There is just so much uncertainty.”

The Consequences of COVID-19

Seventy-one percent of 876 respondents who have received a cancer diagnosed expressed a desire to work. Although going back to work may be hard for someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, the top reasons respondents reported in doing so included providing normalcy (69%), feeling productive (59%) providing a routine (55%) and keeping their mind off cancer (50%).

“This reminds us how important work is for so many, regardless of a mammoth shift in our culture and workforce like COVID,” Nellis said.

The question remains, how has the pandemic affected the feelings of patients with cancer regarding safety in the workplace? The findings showed that 81% of participants reported that they understood the safety precautions at work, but that 38% still feared contracting COVID-19 as a result of returning to an in-office setting.

To feel safe at work, 78% of respondents said it is important for their employers to implement a vaccine requirement. Additionally, more than half of respondents said there should be thorough cleaning of workspaces (65%), available cleaning and sanitation supplies (62%), and a mask mandate (58%).

Nellis said that the people in the cancer community feel strongly about these safety precautions because they want to be working, but they also feel strongly about keeping their health a top priority.

“Like a majority of Americans, cancer patients and survivors want to be able to safely participate in work, whatever form that takes,” she said. “They don’t want to have to choose between their health and their job, and they shouldn’t have to. No one should.”

A Silver Lining

One of the benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Cancer and Careers report, is this newfound shift to remote work.

That’s because prior to the pandemic, 46% of respondents reported taking extra days off during their time of diagnosis, while 29% said they had to reduce their work schedules and 23% had requested flexible scheduling and remote working (23%).

“The data shows that what survivors continue to look for on the job is what the majority of American workers are now looking for — some basic accommodations to make work possible and productive,” Nellis stressed. “We hope that now with a more widespread understanding of the complexities of managing illness and employment thanks to the pandemic, people who haven’t had to remain on the job or look for a job after a cancer diagnosis might have a better understanding of what an employee or colleague with cancer is facing. Additionally we hope that we might see more proactive support for employees with cancer.”

Additionally, as employers have continued to implement changes to the working environment during this time 81% of survey respondents have disclosed their cancer diagnosis and felt supported by their employee during the pandemic.

Discrimination and Setbacks

Although the pandemic may have resulted in a silver lining for most patients with cancer, Nellis added that it has created another layer of complexity for others when it comes to disclosing a cancer diagnosis to an employer.

The Wakefield survey results revealed that 53% of Black and Hispanic respondents expressed worry their employer would think they couldn’t work, and 37% thought they would be fired, if they disclosed a cancer diagnosis. However, more than half still felt they had to tell their employer because they needed to utilize accommodations such as family and medical leave. Nellis said that this is an example of how cancer makes decisions for people, even in the workplace.

“Which means their decision-making around disclosure wasn’t solely about what was best for them. Cancer takes away so much individual control. Work should feel like a place where you can get some of it back,” she said.

It had also been found that discrimination and COVID-related setbacks are heightened for workers making less than $50,000, Nellis added. Results demonstrated that 29% of Black and Hispanic respondents who were making less than $50,000 reported being laid off from their job during the pandemic — compared with just 8% who were making over that.

And 67% of those making under $50,000 felt pressured to choose between their job and treatment, whereas 52% making over $50,000 reported feeling the same way.

Nellis highlighted the importance of studying the pandemic’s affect on the entire cancer community because it encapsulates what everyone is going through.

“The cancer community is vast and diverse — just like the U.S. There is often discrimination for having a diagnosis of a chronic disease, but that isn’t the whole story. There are unique impacts for people of color. It is therefore extremely important to capture as many different experiences as we can, to not only understand the fuller picture but begin to think about how we can do more to support every member of the community,” she said.

Moving Forward

Cancer survivors are still wanting to contribute and be productive in the workplace, which is something that Nellis said has been consistent across all the surveys the nonprofit has participated in over the years. She added that this survey should show survivors and patients that they are not alone, and a supportive work environment is now a nationwide issue.

“(Survivors and patients) are not alone in their needs and expectations for an improved, more flexible and supportive work environment… We hope these results can empower patients and survivors to know that their experiences are shared by many others, and that there is an organization whose sole purpose is to support them on their work journey,” she concluded.

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